Tone Deaf: The 'slow bleed' of the St. Mary's Strip is jeopardizing live music in San Antonio

Neighborhood complaints, noise concerns, construction and lack of parking are putting pressure on the area that's long been the city's music hotspot.

click to enlarge Construction crews work on North St. Mary's Street. The project, part of the 2017 bond, continues to drag on, much to business owners' dismay. - Travis E. Poling
Travis E. Poling
Construction crews work on North St. Mary's Street. The project, part of the 2017 bond, continues to drag on, much to business owners' dismay.

Alt-country performer Garrett T. Capps is a musical ambassador for the Alamo City.

His song "Born in San Antone" was featured on the hit TV series Billions, and the more recent "I Like Austin, but I Love San Antone" inspired singalongs in music venues as far away as Europe and received play before San Antonio City Council meetings.

Which is why the singer-songwriter finds it frustrating that the Lonesome Rose, the North St. Mary's Strip honky tonk in which he's a partner, has repeatedly tangled with the city of San Antonio over noise and permitting issues.

Last summer, after presenting acoustic music on its back patio for nearly three years, code compliance officers told the club to end the outdoor shows. And this spring, city officials forced the bar to add a commercial kitchen or face closure, citing a stipulation in its four-year-old certificate of occupancy.

Capps said the latest demand came suddenly, required a significant cash outlay and appeared selectively enforced. He suspects both visits were prompted by neighbors from the Pearl-area condos that have encroached on the St. Mary's Strip, the 40-year-old nightlife area that's facing gentrification on all sides.

"The city has recognized my music, and they've recognized the Lonesome Rose for bringing these important music artists to town," Capps said. "So, it feels pretty weird that these things keep happening to us. It crosses my mind a lot."

He's not alone in his frustration. Another St. Mary's Strip music venue, Faust Tavern, recently had to reopen its kitchen after city officials told the owners their certificate of occupancy requires the bar to serve food.

Business owners along the music and nightlife destination say continued flareups with residents from the adjoining Tobin Hill neighborhood and revived enforcement of an antiquated city noise ordinance make it increasingly hard to operate. Further crushing the buzz, a delayed construction project has left the street mangled since early last year, complicating access and parking.

Blayne Tucker, co-owner of longtime St. Mary's music venue The Mix, said those conditions have created a "slow bleed" for the area's roughly 20 bars and nightclubs.

"If the public doesn't wake up pretty quickly, they're essentially going to find themselves ostracized from the entertainment district they've enjoyed for 40 years," Tucker said.

That pain also comes with a side of déjà vu: the Strip has been down this road before, Tucker and other venue owners warn. Noise complaints and neighborhood tensions played into the district's mid-'90s cratering, when it transformed in a few short years from an MTV Spring Break filming location into a virtual ghost town.

Renewed tensions

The latest round of tensions with Tobin Hill residents hit a high after the Strip began returning from its pandemic-forced shutdown.

Neighbors voiced frustration over 2 a.m. screaming fights in front of their bedroom windows, trash strewn in their yards and people urinating in their driveways. Club owners argue that they're being harassed by noise and permit complaints that won't fix those problems.

Compounding the problem, bar owners say regulars are being scared away by ongoing road and sewer construction, a project they say they were told would be finished last October. Over recent months, a sea of orange and white barrels, barricades, signs and traffic cones has made the street hard to navigate, much less find parking along.

Not to mention, the barricading of nearby neighborhoods during a two-weekend traffic study in April hurt sales and made the parking even worse, said Eric Hanken, one of Tucker's partners in The Mix. The business shares a private lot with the bar next door, but it's hard to control who parks there, especially when music shows are going on nearby.

"My approach to this is how do we find balance?" said District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, whose district includes the Strip and Tobin Hill. "I knocked on most doors in Tobin Hill [during my campaign for office], and nobody had to convince me after that, things were out of balance."

During a March town hall meeting, Bravo said bar owners acknowledged the problem with revelers spilling into nearby neighborhoods and were eager to take steps to repair relations with the neighbors.

Even so, musicians and show organizers say they're unhappy that the area that's ground zero for live music in San Antonio continues to be roiled by uncertainty. Compounding their anger is the city's apparent indifference to the Strip as leaders talk about fostering a creative class and supporting local musicians.

Loy Smoak, who books metal and stoner rock shows on the Strip said he's concerned club owners will be pressured into stopping weeknight shows, something that would put a crimp in his ability to book touring bands who are unable to schedule weekend stops here.

Moving those shows to venues in Loopland isn't always possible either, because many of those clubs have higher overheads.

"In the '90s, things were just as crazy on the Strip and somehow everyone survived," Smoak said. "The difference is there weren't condos down there then, and San Antonio wasn't a hip place for people to move to."

click to enlarge Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association President Parker Dixon is encouraged that residents and club owners are now talking. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association President Parker Dixon is encouraged that residents and club owners are now talking.

Neighborhood concerns

Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association President Parker Dixon, 33, moved into his neighborhood aware that its proximity to the Strip meant it would be livelier than the suburbs. Even so, he didn't count on regularly picking up discarded taco wrappers from his front porch or hearing screaming fights at 3 a.m.

"It's exceeded the threshold that any neighborhood should have to tolerate," Dixon said. "I've had someone throw up on our front porch. People have had sex on our curb. It seems like every few months someone is banging on one of neighbors' doors because they're just out of their mind."

One area resident who's been serving drinks to patrons for two decades on the Strip said safety is a growing concern. It's a sentiment echoed by other Tobin Hill residents who say the behavior of patrons seems to have worsened since the bar activity resumed after the prolonged pandemic shutdowns.

"I live seven blocks away and can hear gunshots at night," said the server, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. "People are so quick to grab a weapon."

To her point, a man was killed in February and another wounded in a shooting on the 2800 block of North St. Mary's. The victim reportedly was trying to defend a friend waiting for a ride home from a bar at 2 a.m. The gunman went to his car after his advances were spurned by the waiting woman and returned with a weapon, according to authorities.

While they don't dispute neighbors have endured bad behavior from partiers, bar owners argue that police data doesn't show a spike in calls since nightlife bounced back from the pandemic. Even so, they met with residents at a March meeting arranged by Bravo's office and have pledged to work on solutions that keep the party off residential streets.

Dixon said he feels encouraged by the dialogue.

"It feels like all the accountable parties are finally talking with each other instead of shouting at each other," he said.

Not every Tobin Hill resident's experience with the Strip has included drunken shenanigans in their front yard. Alfonso Robalin, 56, moved his family from Alamo Heights into his parents' former home in the neighborhood and said he enjoys opening his door on the weekend to hear the "pulse" of the nearby nightlife.

Like Dixon, he's glad neighbors and club owners are talking, noting that those lines of communication have been severed for years. Even so, he expects some residents will continue to call in complaints regardless of the business' attempts to compromise.

"I think there's going to be a group of people who aren't going to be happy with the Strip, no matter what," he added.

click to enlarge Musician and bar owner Garrett T. Capps is frustrated with code issues facing the Lonesome Rose. - Ryan Vestil
Ryan Vestil
Musician and bar owner Garrett T. Capps is frustrated with code issues facing the Lonesome Rose.

Noise whispering

To some degree, the earlier breakdown in dialogue between businesses and residents may stem from the city's focus on noise abatement to address neighborhood concerns. Bravo said a task force he inherited from his predecessor that was meant to reassess the city's existing noise ordinance "created a forum for bar owners and residents to yell at and insult one another."

Bar owners said they're frustrated with a pilot project recently completed by the city that dispatched a half-dozen code compliance officers Thursdays through Saturdays to respond to nighttime noise complaints.

Rather than shut down shows and events, the officers wrote tickets which the city mailed to offending businesses. But even after arming themselves with noise meters and asking performers to turn down, Strip businesses still racked up citations. One manager said his club had six tickets in April despite constant monitoring efforts.

Bravo said he's encouraged by the task force's move to hire Don Pitts, an Austin-based sound expert known as the "Noise Whisperer" for his work lowering noise levels where entertainment districts and residential areas meet. Pitts' company, Sound Music Cities, uses technology and science to curtail noise while still allowing music lovers to enjoy a full-volume experience.

The city announced the hiring of Sound Music Cities in March, and the contract is still in the approval stages. Pitts shared his preliminary report with the Current, which outlines steps for addressing noise concerns.

The document suggests that the city create a permitting process rather than rely so heavily on punitive action. It also notes that the current 63-decibel limit for overnight noise doesn't work. "A cogent noise ordinance should establish sound limits that are achievable so that businesses can come into compliance proactively," according to the analysis.

Significantly, the report also argues that noise levels are only one aspect of addressing neighborhood concerns about nightlife establishments and those "cannot be solved by a noise ordinance." What's more, it notes that nightspots that play music on their patios seem to be a larger problem locally than live-music venues.

In emailed comments to the Current, Pitts said the permitting process shouldn't be costly for clubs and must evolve out of a collaborative process.

"Generally, our philosophy on a permitting process is that it shouldn't be overly complicated and should lay the groundwork to provide resolution and a partnership mindset," he said. "From our experience, the most useful aspect of the process is the sound impact evaluation, which sets the framework for entitlements and community conversations."

Streets and parking

Complicating the tension with neighbors is the Strip's ongoing construction, part of a 2017 bond election package for underground gas pipeline and sewer upgrades. The project started in March 2021, and after multiple setbacks is now expected to wrap up in February 2023.

So far, the gas portion of the project is done and work is ongoing on the second and third phases of the sewer lines, according to city officials. A Google Fiber line installed through an existing sewer line delayed the first phase.

Although bar owners said they were told the streets would be reopened by October of last year, a city official familiar with the project said he's unsure where that information came from and was never part of the timeline for a finish date.

Money was recently allocated from the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone to expand the final steps of the infrastructure project. After the deep utility work is done, crews will dig a shallow conduit trench to install additional street lighting — a safety measure included in the project. Beautification landscaping, including trees, will cap off the project.

The Mix's Tucker said he's all for upkeep but accuses the city of dragging its feet on the repairs.

"There's been one mismanagement at that site after another," he added.

On a recent Friday night, Alyssa Tamez and Harlan Roque rode their bikes to the Strip to avoid the snarl of traffic and parking scarcity. Roque said the area would be more enjoyable if the street was completely closed on busy weekend nights and if parking was located on either end of St. Mary's with shuttles running to the clubs.

Bravo said he's looking into that idea and officials have been in talks with property owners to expand parking. While the street can't be closed because of the neighborhoods, he said the city could explore some form of transportation from parking lots at the San Antonio Water System property on the other side of U.S. Highway 281 from the top of the Strip.

Construction contractor SpawGlass is using a leased lot near longtime strip staple Tycoon Flats as a staging ground for equipment used on the road project. The property's owner is considering installing a 240-space parking lot to serve the area once work is complete and the equipment moves out, Bravo said.

St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church at 2504 N. St. Mary's has also agreed to open up to 50 additional parking spaces, the councilman added.

The Tripoint campus of Trinity Baptist Church, which primarily hosts daytime or evening activities is also an option. By the time action on the Strip heats up, the facility's massive lot at the 281 end of St. Mary's is empty.

Bravo said city officials had talked with Trinity Baptist about using the lot to relieve parking pressure, but the owners were concerned about liability issues. He said the city will try again to see if it can overcome the apprehension.

Meanwhile, results are in for the city's traffic study by Pape-Dawson Engineers, conducted with the help of the San Antonio Police Department during two weekends this spring. Those will be presented to the neighborhood and business owners in an as-yet-unscheduled town hall meeting, Bravo said.

For the study, the SAPD barricaded residential streets behind the North St. Mary's Street business district and allowed only residents of those blocks to enter late at night. Based on the results of the traffic study, which Bravo hadn't yet seen at the time of his interview with the Current, the councilman's office will ask neighbors for their input on how to limit parking in residential areas and when it should be allowed.

Both business owners and Tobin Hill residents said they expect those recommendations to include limiting residential streets to residents' parking from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — an idea both have advocated for years now.

Tobin Hill's Dixon says he blames the city, at least partially, for dragging its feet on resolving some of the issues where both residents and business owners share common ground. For all the recent gentrification near the Pearl, Tobin Hill is still largely a middle-income and working-class neighborhood that's had a hard time getting city officials' attention, he added.

Bravo said he's made it a priority to find solutions that allow the bars and Tobin Hill residents to coexist. He considers the success of businesses along the Strip to be part of his vision for growing and transforming the city.

"I'm not looking to shut down the bar owners," Bravo said. "Economic development for me is not to give tax breaks for companies to come here but to create a vibrant city where people want to live and work."

In the meantime, musician and Lonesome Rose partner Capps said he'd like to see those solutions appear quickly. San Antonio music fans are already bearing the brunt of the Strip's myriad problems.

"This is directly affecting our ability to host live music," he said. "And it sucks."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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